Evelyn Waugh had visited Boa Vista in 1933, coming down from what was then British Guiana, and told the story in his travel book Ninety-two Days. He described his first encounter with the residents, thus: “The vaqueiros studied us with an air which I came to recognize as characteristic of Boa Vista . . . conveying, as it did, in equal degrees, contempt, suspicion and the suggestion that only listlessness kept them from active insult.” And later, “[The inhabitants] are naturally homicidal by inclination, and every man, however poor, carries arms; only the universal apathy keeps them from frequent bloodshed . . . The German at the Priory constantly slept with a loaded gun at his bedside and expressed surprise at seeing me go shopping without a revolver.” It was mainly on the strength of Waugh’s account that I went to Boa Vista and I was not disappointed.
When Waugh visited the place it was sleepy and retrograde; when I visited it was wild west. Boa Vista has grown in a few years from a village of 5,000 to a bustling town of over 50,000, fueled by the discovery of gold and diamonds. In addition to prospectors, the area had attracted landless squatters from the Northeast who are encroaching on the large estates and the substantial Indian lands. This is in addition to Boa Vista’s traditional industry of smuggling. If Manaus prices had seemed to be set for Japanese businessmen, Boa Vista prices seemed to be set for successful gold prospectors.
The Territory of Roraima, the northern-most part of Brasil, is the home of the Yanomami Indians, the largest primitive group in Latin America. There are perhaps 20,000 Yanomami all told, living in adjoining areas of Brasil, Colombia and Venezuela. Those living in Brasil number perhaps 9,000. Their rights to their ancestral lands are allegedly protected by Brasilan law, but the boundaries had never been demarcated and with the urging and support of resident priests the Indians were claiming nine million acres. Since in other parts of the country squatters are willing to risk death and kill to claim 20 or 30 acres, I asked one of the priests if he thought a claim of 1,000 acres for every man, woman and child was going to be thought reasonable. He replied that when you are negotiating you have to start by asking for more than you expect to get.
Old ways are slow to change in Boa Vista. In the previous year, I was told, at the conclusion of a political dispute between the territorial governor and the mayor of Boa Vista, pistoleiros allegedly in the employ of the governor shot the mayor down in the street in broad daylight. There were no prosecutions and local folk were said to be more outraged by the style than the substance of the shooting, as most I spoke with agreed that the mayor deserved what he got.
Proximity to the Guyana and Venezuela borders, currency instability in Brasil and the utter chaos in Guyana’s Marxist economy have fueled an active local smuggling industry. Most of the players were said to congregate socially at what is called “the Mafia corner,” a short distance up from the river. They were a colorful bunch, with much gold jewelry. A number carried large brown paper bags from which they periodically drew thick bundles of banknotes to exchange with other local businessmen also carrying brown paper bags. They had the contented look of men who did not pay taxes.
I spent an afternoon waiting for our car to be fixed in the company of a bunch of Guyanese smugglers at Kitty’s Beer Garden. They were in an expansive mood and telling tales of their exploits. The only one that had any charm was related by a fellow in a lilting Caribbean accent, thus: “I was going across the border with four kilos of gold bars in my bag and this customs guy comes up and says ‘what you got in that bag, gold bars?’ and I say ‘Yeah,’ and he laughs and goes on.” I had somehow expected smugglers to have more interesting stories.